WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama called on Hamas on Friday to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier. "I want to make sure they are listening: If they are serious about trying to resolve that situation that soldier needs to be unconditionally released as soon as possible."
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Speaking at the White House before Congress ended its final session before summer recess, Obama reiterated the position he has held from the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. "I have been very clear throughout this crisis: Israel has a right to defend itself."
The US president stressed that "no country can or would tolerate tunnels being dug under their land that can be used to launch terrorist attacks."
|Obama press conference on failure of Gaza ceasefire|
But Obama also said that the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza presented a serious problem. "We have also been clear that innocent civilians in Gaza, caught in the crossfire, have to weigh on our conscience; a ceasefire was one way in which we could stop the killing, step back, and try to resolve some of the underlying."
The American president also chose to back Kerry's efforts in reaching a ceasefire between the two parties: "Let me give Secretary of State John Kerry credit; he has endured unfair criticism, simply to try to get to a point where the killing stopped."
Obama empathized with the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza. "I want to see everything possible done to make sure Palestinian civilians aren't being killed, it's heartbreaking to see what's happening."
Explaining the difficult path his administration has walked during the current crisis, Obama said: "It's hard to reconcile Israel's legitimate need to defend itself with our concern for those civilians."
Obama added: "On one hand, Israel has the right to defend itself, and it has to get to those rockets and tunnels; on the other hand, because of the terribly irresponsible actions by Hamas, housing these rockets right in the middle of civilian neighborhoods, we end up seeing those who have nothing to do with these rockets being hurt."
Obama's statement also after the collapse of a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The temporary truce lasted less than two hours, as Gaza militants attacked IDF forces, killing two and capturing 2nd Lt. Hadar Godin. Israeli forces have moved deeper into southern Gaza in search of the soldier.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, fearing an escalation of violence in Gaza, called on Turkey and Qatar on Friday to use their influence to secure the release of the abducted soldier.
Kerry called Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al Attiyah and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu soon after being told of the abduction and the killings of two Israeli soldiers by an aide while flying back from a visit to India. The incidents led to the quick breakdown of a ceasefire Kerry had worked hard to broker.
"We have urged them, implored them to use their influence to try to get the release of that soldier," a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Kerry. "Absent that, the risk of this continuing to escalate, leading to further loss of life, is high."
The official said he understood the ceasefire broke down about an hour after it began.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.